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Review: Shallow Graves

Review: Shallow Graves

Title: Shallow Graves
Author: Kali Wallace
Published: 2016
Length: 358 pages

My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

When Breezy wakes up in her own grave a year after being murdered, she has no memory of who killed her or how. She knows only that she now has the abilities to both detect the presence of murderers and to kill them with a touch. After some experimentation, she also realizes that she cannot die–properly–a second time. Unable to go home, she heads west looking for answers. She discovers along the way that she is far from the only non-human entity trying to make it in a human world–and that there are humans who will go to great lengths to destroy them.

I really liked this book. It only took me two days to read, but when I wasn’t reading it, I wanted to be.

The premise isn’t the most original–“teenage girl wakes up (either her ghost or her actual body) with no memory of how she died” seems to be a fairly common blurb these days–but I thought that Kali Wallace took the story in a pretty unique direction.

I also liked Breezy herself. As so many like it are, this book is told in first-person, but Breezy has a distinct (yet still distinctly teenage) voice. The prose is simple and elegant without being too mature. It makes for fast, easy, enjoyable reading, and it doesn’t sound like every other first-person, present-day YA novel I’ve ever read. That’s all I want, really; I’m not asking for every author to be William Shakespeare! Breezy is also half-Chinese and bisexual, and while these things are brought up on a somewhat regular basis throughout the novel, Wallace never rubs readers’ noses in them like, “Look how diverse my book is!”

My favorite parts of Shallow Graves are the flashbacks to Breezy’s previous life. Or, just Breezy’s life, since she’s technically dead. Whatever. That said, Wallace knows how to amp up the tension in the present when necessary. I never felt totally afraid for Breezy since she couldn’t be killed (again), but there are still a few frightening and disturbing moments in there.

All that said, the only real flaws of this book are its slightly meandering plot, incomplete world-building, and underdeveloped characters. I know that sounds like a lot of flaws, but bear with me.

Early on, Breezy gets mixed up with a “church” run by a monster-hunter called Mr. Willow. Like his father, he’s devoted his life to destroying “unnatural” creatures like Breezy. That’s the main conflict, but it kind of…comes in and out of focus as the novel progresses. There’s more-or-less definitive conclusion, but even that leaves plenty of questions unanswered Mostly it kind of peters out and feels rather incomplete. Likewise, the whole concept of a wold full of creatures like ghouls (who eat dead bodies) and banshees is simply not fleshed out very well. This is due, in part, to the narrator: Breezy has little knowledge of such things and gains only a little throughout the story, thus the reader is also in the dark. Like the plot, the world-building leaves something to be desired, but I was more intrigued than I was dissatisfied at the end of the book.

There are also a lot of supporting cast members in Shallow Graves, most of whom sound like they have very interesting stories of their own–only almost none of them are fleshed out very well. With the exception of Breezy, who strikes me as quite well-rounded, as soon as a character becomes somewhat compelling and is on the verge of making a real impact on the story, they exit stage left, never to be heard from and rarely spoken of again. That frustrated me more than anything.

There are a few other small things that bothered me. When Breezy finally remembers who killed her, she sort of lets it slide rather than, I don’t know, leaving some incriminating evidence somewhere, putting in an anonymous tip with the police, anything really. I just sat there thinking, “She isn’t going to give her parents some peace of mind? She’s just going to let them wonder if she’s dead or alive forever?” I also really didn’t buy that the cops had never spoken to or considered Breezy’s killer as a suspect before, but that’s neither here nor there.

The end of the book also gets a bit preachy for my taste. For example, Breezy claims that, in a universe in which her body and killer were found, her murder would just be used as an example of why girls shouldn’t go out partying rather than used to question inappropriate male behavior. That’s nonsense. I’ve watched more than my fair share of true-crime type shows (Dateline, 48 Hours, etc.) and the victims featured are a) usually women, and b) almost always portrayed as just that: victims, people “everyone loved” and who did nothing to deserve their fate. (And yeah, God forbid people criticize underage drinking at unsupervised parties!) Also, men, in general, stand a far greater chance of being victims of violent any crime than do women…just saying.

While I wish Wallace had made this one little longer and tighter as well, I thoroughly enjoyed it and was cheering for Breezy all the way. While I find stand-alones refreshing in a market obsessed with sequels and spinoffs, I would like to see a sequel to this one if only to get some answers to the many, many unanswered questions raised by this debut novel and to see where Breezy goes in her (after)life.

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